Illegal Tiny Turtle Sales at Reptile Expos are Endangering Humans and Animals



World Animal Protection’s latest report reveals the US’ largest reptile expos appear to be illegally selling tiny turtles and ignoring basic safety protocols.

As COVID-19 spread across the US, reptile expos started back up as early as spring 2020 while many other businesses went into lockdown. Though the pandemic highlighted the connection between human exploitation of wildlife and zoonotic disease, it was business as usual at many expos where hundreds of reptiles are crowded into small containers and cages for display and purchase.  

Even more alarming, World Animal Protection’s year-long investigation into reptile expos found multiple instances of what appeared to be illegal sales of tiny turtles—sales that have been banned in the US for more than four decades.  

Salmonella: A Serious Public Health Risk  

Interactions with reptiles and amphibians account for roughly 74,000 cases of human Salmonella infections in the US every year. Salmonella bacteria can cause stomach cramps, fever, diarrhea, blood infections, hospitalization, and even death — particularly in vulnerable populations such as young children and persons over 65. That’s why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of turtles with a shell less than four inches in length in 1975. Any reptiles can carry Salmonella, but children are prone to putting the tiniest animals in their mouths and less likely to wash their hands.  

But the sale of tiny turtles persists at places like flea markets and gift shops. Between 2011 and 2013, nearly 500 people across 41 states were infected with Salmonella linked to tiny turtles. 70% of victims were children ten or younger and 31% were children under a year old. In 2007, a three-week-old baby in Florida died from a salmonella infection after her family received a tiny turtle as a gift.

World Animal Protection investigators also found evidence of tiny turtles for sale at the nation’s biggest reptile expos: Repticon, HERPS, and Cold Blooded Expos. In two instances, the sellers confirmed that the turtles’ shells were roughly 2.5 inches.  

Ignoring Public Health Guidelines  

In addition to tiny turtle sales, our investigation revealed a disregard for public health protocols designed to prevent future disease outbreaks. Specifically, our investigators found: 

Finally, our investigators witnessed children being encouraged to touch reptiles. 

Animal Welfare Ignored   

Beyond the public health issues, these expos exist to promote reptiles as pets. These animals are a lifetime commitment and require specialized care such as heat lamps, water heaters, and special enclosures. The African Spurred Tortoise, sold at Repticon and Cold Blooded Expos, live for more than 70 years and grow to more than two feet long—much more work than what a casual buyer at an expo expects when they see a small turtle for sale. People purchase these animals and then abandon them to shelters or the outdoors where they are killed or harm native wildlife.  

Reptile expos threaten public health and hurt animals. While World Animal Protection continues to campaign for an end to the wildlife trade, the enforcement of existing laws designed to protect children is the bare minimum we can expect. We urge the FDA and CDC to work together and tackle this issue once and for all.  

Read the full report

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